Parvez Sharma is a New York- based filmmaker whose first documentary A Jihad For Love xplored the worlds of a range of gay men and lesbian women,
and their faith in Islam. The film was a
huge success in the festival circuit and
had a long theatrical run.
Sharma’s second film, A Sinner In
Mecca, is a more personal film, where as
a gay Muslim filmmaker he sets out to go
on the Haj. In the process he also captures images of his trip as a way to document Islam as it is practiced in Saudi
A Sinner In Mecca recently had its
world premiere at the HotDocs festival in
Toronto. Before the screenings Sharma
received a lot of hate mail and death
threats that became a part of the conversation about the film.
Sharma spoke to India Abroad after his
I wanted to first address the threats you
return from Toronto about the struggle to
make his film and his goal to critically
examine the Wahhabi version of Islam as
practiced in Saudi Arabia.
received before the Toronto screenings.
Was there any protection provided?
Toronto was amazing. The screenings
were sold out and I was told several hundred people were turned away from the
rush lines. This was the most of talked
about film at the festival and generated a
huge amount of press.
Unfortunately — and this was beyond
my control — the story angle became the
threats I had received, which were real.
But that was the headline.
And the threats were online or via
I am still getting the threats. They
come in via the backend on our Web site.
The trailer has gone viral. The most
amount of traffic to our Web site is com-
ing from countries like Pakistan and
Saudi Arabia. So that’s where the nasty
messages are coming from.
HotDocs provided a security detail for
all the screenings. Nothing happened,
although there were hostile questions
from a few audience members.
What kind of hostile questions?
‘You have disrespected Islam?’— which
is completely not true. In fact, this film is
a prayer to Islam if anything.
‘Why have you chosen to film in a place
like Saudi Arabia, which is very disre-
And ‘You have gone ahead and shame-
lessly shown the faces of women.’ Things
There were three sold out screenings,
which is remarkable. Can you compare
this demand for the film to when Jihad
For Love was first shown — that was also
in the same city at the Toronto
International Film Festival?
This was much more intense than the
world premiere of Jihad For Love at
TIFF in 2007. The reason it was intense
was because of the content of the film
and the press it generated before the
screening. The Toronto Star ran a full-page story the day before the screening.
On the day of the screening Metro —
which is a free newspaper — ran another
full-page story, very prominently placed,
saying the director was receiving death
threats. It basically meant that every
morning commuter in Toronto would
have read the story in Metro. We were
very afraid because of that.
My publicist landed in Toronto the
same day and as soon as he entered
immigration and said he was attending
HotDocs, the immigration official asked
if he knew about ‘that sinner film that
everyone was talking about?’ Then she
handed him her copy of Metro.
Did you feel uncomfortable? Were you
Yes, I was nervous. I am trying hard to
change the narrative around the film.
Because that is not the discussion I want
What is the conversation you want to
hold around the film? Apart from the fact
that you have made a powerful personal
film, what was the story you wanted to tell
to the people?
This is a deeply personal film, but it is
also extremely political. What I am interested in most is that the film is seen as a
the direct challenge to the government of
Saudi Arabia, to the corrupt monarchy
there and to their version of Islam called
But when you say it’s a personal film —
and you say a line in the film that you
CINEMA WITH A SOUL/HOT DOCS M12 THE MAGAZINE
India Abroad May 22, 2015 ‘This film does not offer any easy answers’
For filmmaker Parvez Sharma A Sinner In Mecca is deeply personal,
yet extremely political. He speaks with Aseem Chhabra/India
Abroad about how he shot the film and is now trying to steer its
narrative away from the threats he is receiving.